How Bits Work

There are 4 basic families that bits are divided into;

  • Direct Contact Bits (such as Snaffles)

  • Leverage Bits (such as Curbs, Pelhams, and Kimberwicks)

  • Gag Bits (such as Elevators, Wonder Bits, and European Gags)

  • Bitless Options (such as Hackamores, Sidepulls, and Cross Under Bridles).


Bits work off multiple pressure points on the horse’s skull. Seven of these points are the poll, tongue, lips, palate, bars, chin groove and nose.

The action of the pressure from a simple snaffle bit usually follows the following order.

  • The first place the horse feels the action of the bit is on their lips and corners their mouth. This is where loose ring snaffles provide pre-signal as they create pull at the lips first.

  • The second place that pressure is felt is when a bit is applied is on the horse’s tongue. This will vary depending on the mouthpiece.

  • Depending on the bit’s design, the roof of horse's mouth/palate is the third place where pressure is applied. Some horses have very low palates, these horses tend to prefer bits that don’t have a nutcracker effect, such as a low port mullen, or a French link.

  • When working with different styles of bits such as curbs, hackamores, or a variety the horse will also have pressure applied in the other areas. 


Bit Pressure Points.jpg



A snaffle uses a direct pull from the rein. It is a straight connection from the bit to the rein, with no leverage, poll pressure or a different direction of force other than the direct aid. When a direct rein applies an equal amount of force in the mouth that is in being applied by the hand. A bit with a broken mouthpiece is not always a snaffle.




Parts of a Snaffle Bit

Parts of a Snaffle Bit

Parts of a Western Bit

Parts of a Western Bit



Cheek Pieces

The cheek pieces are the side on the bit. There are many different types of cheek pieces such as Loose Ring, Dee Ring and Egg Butt to name a few.

In Western Bits, the check pieces include the Purchase and the Shank. The average curb has a 1.5” purchase and a 4.5” shank. This creates a 1:3 ratio from the pressure from the purchase, which puts pressure on the chin strap. It also creates a 1:4 ratio from the length of the full shank and cheek of the bit. This amount of pressure is produced in the horse’s mouth. Which translates to for every 1lb of pressure created from the hands, creates 3lbs of the pressure of the chin strap and 4lbs of pressure in the mouth.


The Purchase is the part of the bit that sits above the mouthpiece. The length of the purchase determines how quickly the bit will react in the mouth. The shorter the purchase, the faster the bit will engage in the mouth, the longer the purchase the slower.


The Shank is where the leverage of the bit’s design comes in. The longer the shank, the larger the ratio of pressure that is applied. This means that you can ask less in the hand and get a larger reaction in the mouth. Shank sizes can vary from 2” to 8”.

Types of Shanks

  • The shorter the shank, the faster the horse will feel the rein pressure, and the faster the pressure will be released.

  • Straight Shanks gives no pre-signal at all which makes them a strong, severe bit. Such as a Tom Thumb.

  • Curved Shanks or S-Shaped allow for more pre-signal for before the bit is fully engaged.


The canons are the parts of the bit and are set over the bars of the horse’s mouth. It is important to remember that the bars of the horse’s mouth are very thin and boney, with very little muscle covering.